He has fed the whales at Sea World, bodysurfed in the Pacific
and shown up to work wearing a T-shirt, jeans and sandals. Yet
there are staples of the local diet that Doug Flutie, the San
Diego Chargers' new quarterback, refuses to sample. "Have I
tried a fish taco?" he asked, incredulously, after practice last
Thursday. "No. And I won't, ever."
You can forget about raw fish, too--Flutie's stint as Terry
Bradshaw's sushi-bar buddy in a recent TV commercial
notwithstanding. "Sushi was in front of me during the filming,
but I didn't touch it," Flutie explained. "I'm not a seafood guy."
As far as Chargers fans are concerned, Flutie can eat whatever
he pleases. In a city starved for gutsy quarterback play, Flutie
need only be himself to be loved. Dougie Fresh is the big fish
in town and the free-agent catch of the year--not to mention the
prime reason the Chargers, coming off a 1-15 fiasco of a season,
are 3-0 and the AFC's only remaining undefeated team.
On Sunday at Qualcomm Stadium, Flutie guided the NFL's most
surprising team to another lopsided triumph. The Chargers' 28-14
victory over the previously undefeated Cincinnati Bengals gave
them a one-game lead over the Denver Broncos and the Oakland
Raiders in the AFC West. In a development not even Nostradamus
could have predicted, San Diego is one of only three teams
(along with the Green Bay Packers and the St. Louis Rams) to
enter October without a blemish. "Please, please, don't tell
anyone about us," star linebacker Junior Seau pleaded after
Sunday's game. "Let the nation think of the Chargers as that
Sorry, Junior, but the transformation is obvious: These Chargers
still feed off the physical play of their inspired defense, but
their offense is now buttressed by a stud halfback, a
game-breaking speedster and a play-calling wizard. The key to
everything, however, is Flutie, who, a few weeks shy of his 39th
birthday, is finally getting the unfettered affection he
deserves. Although his numbers against the Bengals weren't
spectacular--12 completions in 19 attempts for 133 yards and a
touchdown--he was in command from start to finish.
For so long skeptics have been preoccupied with what Flutie is
not: tall, slingshot-armed or especially comfortable playing the
role of the loyal scrub and unobtrusive understudy. Perhaps,
finally, we should focus instead on what he is: a winner who
handles his business and makes everyone around him more
comfortable about theirs. "Doug Flutie is the missing piece to
the San Diego Chargers, the thing we've been lacking these past
few years," Seau says. "This is probably the first time he has
felt that he has a team to embrace him, and his comfort level is
rubbing off on everyone."
Oh, there's one other thing Flutie isn't--Ryan Leaf, perhaps the
biggest bust in NFL history. After three years of watching Leaf
throw interceptions and tantrums, the Chargers had fallen into
an emotional abyss. When newly hired general manager John Butler
released Leaf last Feb. 28 and signed Flutie nine days later, it
was as if the San Diego locker room had turned from black and
white to Technicolor. "A dark cloud was lifted from over our
heads," says standout strong safety Rodney Harrison. "One bad
apple can spoil the whole bunch. The crap we were dealing with
can bring down an entire organization, and it took John Butler
to get rid of it."
Harrison made a point of attending the press conference to
announce Flutie's signing, becoming the first of legions of San
Diegans to express his gratitude. Barely a day goes by that a
stranger doesn't approach Flutie and thank him for, among other
things, not being anything like his predecessor. Says Flutie,
"Even if I played mediocre, I think the fans would be
appreciative of me, given the headaches they've had to deal with."
Flutie, too, has had a disproportionate share of hassles.
Because of his height, generously listed at 5'10", the 1984
Heisman Trophy winner never got much love from NFL personnel
types. From 1990 through '97 he was out of the country (being
named the CFL's Most Outstanding Player a record six times and
winning three Grey Cups) and out of mind. Signed by the Buffalo
Bills in '98--Butler was the general manager--Flutie spent three
seasons locked in a contentious competition with Rob Johnson. By
the end of last year, the gulf between Flutie and Johnson was
wider than Niagara Falls, and one had to go. Did new Buffalo
general manager Tom Donahoe make the right call? Though younger,
taller and more of a pure pocket passer, Johnson is struggling
with the 0-3 Bills, while Flutie is less than two weeks removed
from a 353-yard passing day against the Dallas Cowboys, the
second-highest total of his NFL career.
When Flutie was stunningly benched before Buffalo's wild-card
playoff game against the Tennessee Titans in January 2000, he
glumly mused, "All of a sudden, I'm five-foot-nine again." He'll
never be a 6-footer, but it is time we start looking up to him
for his many gifts. He is not 33-14 as an NFL starter by
accident. In addition to his leadership skills, deceptive speed
and improvisational genius, Flutie has a far better arm than
most casual observers realize. Just ask the Bengals. Coming off
a 21-10 upset of the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens,
Cincinnati's defense looked lost on the game's first score,
Flutie's 19-yard touchdown pass to Curtis Conway with 10:43 left
in the second quarter. Following a play fake to rookie running
back LaDainian Tomlinson, Flutie waited for Conway to drift
across the back of the end zone, then whipped a spiral tighter
than Jay-Z's latest rhymes.
Cincinnati tied the score at 7-7 on Jon Kitna's eight-yard
touchdown pass to rookie wideout Chad Johnson 24 seconds before
halftime. After the break the Chargers took charge. Tomlinson
led the power surge, running for 88 of his 107 yards and three
touchdowns. Picked fifth in the draft after San Diego passed on
the chance to select Michael Vick as Flutie's successor,
Tomlinson is the runaway leader in the Rookie of the Year race.
"I thought he was good coming in, and now I'm convinced," says
Bengals linebacker Takeo Spikes, an emerging star himself. "He
has great balance, a killer change of direction and breakaway
What's scary is that Tomlinson hasn't even showcased the last of
those attributes but still ranks second in the league in
rushing, with 310 yards. He has also been a tad sloppy, having
lost a pair of fumbles--and a pair of diamond earrings--in his
young career. The $20,000 clip-ons were dislodged during San
Diego's 32-21 win over the Cowboys, and Tomlinson's ears have
been burning ever since. "Yeah, I've gotten a lot of grief from
the guys," he says, "but at least I had insurance."
As much as he coveted Tomlinson, Butler swears Vick would be in
a Chargers uniform today had his predraft trade with the Atlanta
Falcons not included ultrarapid return man and No. 3 wideout Tim
Dwight, whose third-down reception helped set up Tomlinson's
go-ahead touchdown run midway through the third quarter. Butler,
fired by the Bills last December, has been on fire since heading
west. His decision to keep coach Mike Riley was popular with the
players, and the addition of Norv Turner as offensive
coordinator created an even bigger buzz. Turner, whom players
have dubbed the Mad Scientist, called a typically brilliant game
on Sunday. For all of his struggles as the Washington Redskins'
coach during the previous seven seasons, the man has an
excellent football intellect. "We go at it every day in
practice," says Seau, who during his marvelous 12-year career
has augmented his talent with an unrivaled strategic sense. "If
it were a chess match, we'd both still have our queens on the
If Flutie is the hottest thing going in San Diego, Seau remains
the king of the Chargers' castle. On Sunday he demonstrated why,
as they say in the locker room, he is still Dat Dude. Seau's
14th career interception set up San Diego's first score, and he
energized the crowd with huge hits, as did Harrison (nine
tackles and a forced fumble), an eight-year veteran who seems to
be getting better with age. Two of Butler's free-agent signees,
cornerback Ryan McNeil (two interceptions, giving him five for
the season) and defensive end Marcellus Wiley (a sack and a
forced fumble), also came up large.
"This team has so much character because of all it has been
through, and it all stems from Junior," Wiley, another former
Bill, said last Friday as he mixed a CD at his Cardiff hillside
home. (A part-time DJ who goes by the name Wildstyle, Wiley
persuaded a stadium official to allow him to select pregame
music at home games.) "You've got to go all out on every play
because you're petrified to look that man in the eyes if you
Seau has seen enough football to know that the Chargers, though
they are 3-0 for the first time since their Super Bowl season of
1994, are a long way from making ring-fitting appointments.
Flutie, too, concedes that the team's early schedule--San Diego
opened with a win over the Redskins and next has road games
against the Cleveland Browns and the New England Patriots--is
less than challenging. "It's kind of a honeymoon period," he
says. "In the fans' eyes I'm pushing six feet--until we lose a
game. Then I'll be back to five-foot-six."
List him at whatever height you choose, but know that Flutie's
uniform has never fit better. He is San Diego's salvation, and
San Diego is his--and there's nothing fishy about it.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT BECK CUTTING EDGE Tomlinson, second in the NFL in rushing, burned the Bengals with 107 yards and three touchdowns.
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH (2) LEADERS OF THE PACK Flutie (7) just keeps finding ways to win, while the hard-hitting Seau keeps flattening opponents.
Flutie will never be a 6-footer, but it's time we start looking
up to him for his many gifts. He's not 33-14 by accident.